Minister Darragh O’Brien TD has boasted that the Planning Bill 2023, the third largest bill in the history of the Houses of the Oireachtas at 710 pages long, will “bring greater clarity, consistency, and certainty to planning”.
The proposed legislation, currently at second stage in the Dáil, is the culmination of what the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage describes as a “complete fitness check” of the current legislation around planning in the State, the Planning and Development Act 2000.
Housing and energy experts have consistently claimed that the planning process in Ireland is too complicated and that this is preventing further construction of housing and of would-be energy producing sites, with many cases ending up being drawn out in courts leading to delays in delivery.
Reforming An Bord Pleanála
One of the central tenets of the Bill is that An Bord Pleanála will be re-named to An Coimisiún Pleanála, and that there will be a complete restructuring of the state planning commissioners, which will be responsible for all decision-making regarding appeals and applications made to them under the new Bill.
There will be a separate corporate structure which would be led by a CEO, and have a strengthened management team and organisational structure, which would undertake all organisational and technical functions to support core decision-making roles. There would also be the governing body, which will be responsible for the governance and performance of the organisation.
Under the provisions of the Bill, development plans would have a 10-year lifespan rather than the current six-year lifespan with Minister O’Brien claiming that these will be “more strategic in nature than under the 2000 Act”. An interim review of the development plan would occur in year five to take account of wider changes since the plan was prepared and to allow it to be updated.
In tandem with this is the provision for the introduction of statutory timelines for decision-making, including for the first time, for An Coimisiún Pleanála.
The Bill would introduce 10-year development plans for local authorities, with local area plans being replaced with specific types of area-based plans. The Minister states that this is with the aim of “enabling local authority objectives to be prioritised, rather than simply being mandatory in nature and drawing resources where not always most needed”.
The objective of these measures is to ensure improved consistency and alignment throughout all tiers of planning.
With the aim of tackling delays in the courts, the Government is proposing a reform of planning judicial review, which would include the introduction of a scale of fees and an environmental legal cost financial assistance mechanism.
The Department is further proposing new provisions for urban development zones. These aim to facilitate the identification of areas with potential for significant development, including housing, to ensure the opportunities can be maximised and development can take place in a timely manner. It is hoped that these arrangements will provide for fast-track planning in accordance with an approved scheme.
The Irish Planning Institute (IPI) welcomed publication of the bill. In a statement, the organisation said it would “engage extensively with our members with a view to providing practical recommendations for amending and improving the Bill based on their insights and expertise of the planning system, across a range of backgrounds and sectors, as it makes its way through the Oireachtas”.
Debating the Bill in the Dáil on 30 November 2023, Minister O’Brien stated, in response to an assertion from People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett TD that the legislation was brought forward too quickly for opposition TDs to be able to properly scrutinise it, there has not been “any truncation of the process” of forming the legislation.
O’Brien added: “There is no doubt the planning landscape has changed profoundly over the past quarter of a century, and therefore it was clear that the legislation underpinning the planning system required a major overhaul.
“Some have criticised the length it has taken to do this work while others have suggested the process has been rushed. The truth is this work has been conducted methodically, in the first instance underpinned by a 15-month review by the Attorney General, informed by dozens of key stakeholder voices in the planning arena.”
Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly made the case that much of the State’s planning system “works well” but “decades of underfunding of our planning authorities by the Government, alongside years of bad Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael planning legislation have created problems that must be addressed”.
There will still be a number of amendment stages for the Bill to go through, calling into question whether the Bill will be made into law before the expiration of this government’s term in office. However, if passed, the Bill will represent a step forward which will be broadly welcomed by those in the planning sector.